The unofficial Congressional book club

It’s  reassuring to know that presidents and congressional representatives–or, perhaps, their staff–sometimes read something other than staff-prepared briefing books and lobbyist-generated manifestos. Well, at least some of them do. A recent blog post by Elham Khatami at congress.org offers a short list of books that had a direct and positive influence on national leaders. Here’s the list and descriptions of some very impressive consequences.  How many of them have you read? Although I wish I could say otherwise, my personal score is embarrassingly low.

Who needs a book agent when you have Congress?In recent weeks, Members of Congress have cited Michael Lewis’ book, “The Big Short,” at least 15 times in hearings, debates and interviews about the economic crisis.In words that would melt a literary agent’s heart, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) even called the book, which focuses on the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, “an eye-opener.”

“The Big Short” joints a long list of books that have been cited by lawmakers. In recent years, the unofficial Congressional book club has also included Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars,” an account of the CIA’s involvement  in Afghanistan before Sept. 11, and Thomas Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” which calls for an environmental revolution.

We took a closer look at some of the most influential books in Congressional history.

1. “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair

A young Chicago socialist, Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” to raise awareness about workers’ rights, saying he hoped it would be the “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of the labor movement.” What he did not anticipate was that the novel would fuel public outcry over the unsanitary conditions in the food preparation industry.

Although the book is a work of fiction, Sinclair conducted interviews and immersed himself in food preparation business to make his story of the problems in the meatpacking industry come to life.

After being published in magazines and then as a book, it led to public pressure to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which created the Food and Drug Administration, and the Meat Inspection Act.

2. “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck

Published in 1939, Steinbeck’s fictional account of the Joads, an Oklahoma family of sharecroppers during the Great Depression, personified the plight of migrant farm workers in America.

In search of work and dignity, the family travels to California. But jobs are scarce and their arrival is met with persecution by the authorities and locals. After reading the novel, President Franklin Roosevelt said of California’s farmers “something must be done and done soon.”

Shortly after the book’s publication, a subcommittee of the Senate’s Education and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Robert LaFollette (R-Wisc.) suggested that protective labor laws be expanded to cover farm workers.

3. “The Other America,” by Michael Harrington

An advocate of democratic socialism, Michael Harrington released his sobering study of poverty in the United States in 1962, arguing that it is America’s moral responsibility to solve the problem.

After reading the book, President John F. Kennedy began contemplating anti-poverty legislation.

Following Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued this “war on poverty,” influencing Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which provided health, education, welfare and other social programs to the poor.

4. “Silent Spring,” by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s ecological treatise “Silent Spring” challenged the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, arguing that they killed animals, harmed the environment and had detrimental health consequences for humans.

Published in 1962, her book is widely regarded as the root of the green movement.

Despite the controversial nature of Carson’s argument, the Kennedy administration supported her views that pesticides were unsafe and overused in the United States the following year.

Her book was credited with launching the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and with pushing Congress to pass the Pesticide Control Act of 1972.

5. “Unsafe at Any Speed,” by Ralph Nader

Nader’s 1965 book about the automobile industry’s lax safety regulations completely changed the way cars were manufactured.

Before the publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” vehicles were made without seatbelts and dashboards were made of metal, making injury or death high risks in even the smallest of accidents.

Nader highlighted these and countless other dangerous conditions and his book prompted Congress to pass Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which made certain safety measures mandatory, including the installation of seat belts.

It also led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

Gloria Shur Bilchik Gloria Shur Bilchik (483 Posts)

Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of progressive values as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.


  • Andy

    Great article, grouping these books together in an historical/political context and thinking about what current books might have similar impacts.